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Parents: Reading Role Models or Victims of Readicide?


Last week, the Department of Education released its latest report about the state of reading in America. Results, estimated from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), indicate that 32 million adult Americans lack fundamental literacy skills. Leaders in adult literacy education cite undiagnosed learning disabilities, immigration, and high school dropout rates as factors, but illiterate adults are not the only ones who aren’t reading. An oft-quoted 2007 Associated Press Poll found that 27% of adult Americans did not read a single book in 2006. It seems that fewer and fewer adults are reading—some due to poor reading ability and others by choice.

While we teachers may not identify with the mounting numbers of alliterate and illiterate adults in America (after all, we are reading, aren’t we?), these non-readers cross our paths—at meet the teacher nights and conferences. Many of the adults who don’t read are the parents of our students. Teachers expect parents to support literacy at home—reading to their children, taking them to the library and buying books, and sharing their literacy lives. What about parents who cannot do the job?

It is popular for educators to list poor parent role modeling as a reason, out of our control, when students cannot read well. Can we talk about the fact that these parents were once students in our classrooms, too? Many of these parents made it through the American educational system and never mastered basic reading skills or internalized reading as a meaningful pursuit. When you ask adults what they remember most about English class, they recall dissecting classics and copying definitions from dictionaries. Schools are not creating capable, lifelong readers, yet we expect parents to rise from the ashes of their own reading failures or apathy and become reading role models for their own kids.

I hear it almost every day, “He is just like his father, he hates to read, too,” or “I was never a reader much myself, she must have gotten that from me,” as if reading interest and ability are traits you inherit like eye color or attached earlobes. A reading gene has not been found, but we recognize the environmental connection. Parents who don’t read often have children who don’t read, and the generational cycle continues on and on.

If we want our students to have reading role models at home, perhaps we should start graduating some.

For parents who do read, they often battle schools to keep their children reading. My husband and I read enough books to raise the average for our entire neighborhood. But our strong examples are not always enough to encourage our two daughters to read. When our oldest daughter was in high school, the major activity in her English classes was watching movies adapted from books she never read. Our fourth grader spends her days cranking out endless test practice worksheets and reading Pollyanna for two months. It is all we can do to keep the reading fires burning in the deluge of soul-killing reading instruction our daughters receive at school.

I know that many of you stoke these fires in your classrooms every day, like I do, but there is no guarantee that students who leave our classrooms strong, avid readers will remain so until graduation (or parenthood). Systemic change in reading instruction from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of high school must occur before we can consistently guarantee readers will emerge from our schools. The task seems daunting.

One respected voice, who offers solutions, is Kelly Gallagher. Well-known as a literacy consultant and author of three popular books on adolescent literacy, Kelly confronts the lack of critical reading skills and poor motivation to read with his high school students every day. In his newest book, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It, Kelly explores how schools often cause students to hate reading or fail to cultivate necessary literacy skills and suggests more effective instructional strategies that have proven successful with his own students.

Kelly selected “The Book Whisperer” as a stop on his Readicide blog book tour. Preview the entire manuscript of Readicide free, and submit questions for Kelly by posting comments to this blog. Answers to your questions will appear on January 28th. Readicide will steel your resolve and promote dialogue with your colleagues and administrators. Check out this powerful addition to the reading instruction debate and add your voice to what should be a national conversation.


I completely agree that "Systemic change in reading instruction from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of high school must occur before we can consistently guarantee readers will emerge from our schools. The task seems daunting." Daunting but imperative.

I'm looking forward to the Readicide blog tour, and to reading the book.

Here's my question. Administrators are enamored with data. They want multiple interim assessments that are showing progress towards goals. They want that data to be able to be put in reports and graphs and to be able to use it to compare teachers and/or schools. They want a uniform curriculum. And while I can understand their concerns as it applies to other content areas, what can I say to get them to realize that reading is so totally different that comparisons are not only faulty but dangerous?

I just read the whole thing; it was fascinating. And frightening! Since I am not a teacher, I wondered what Gallagher thought parents should do to offset the underteaching/overteaching. How do we know what teachers are doing, unless we can go to the classroom and sit in on the lessons? (I'm sure they would love that, and even if I did sit in on the lessons, I don't feel qualified to criticize someone who is probably doing their best in a rigged system.) Should we all rise up against useless worksheets and sticky notes?

My son is in 2nd grade and we go to the library at least once a week. He spends half an hour to an hour at home reading every day -- for fun, anything from Goosebumps on up. We even got rid of cable because I felt that it would help him read more (and it did). And yet, I am afraid that by the time he is a teenager he will have had his spirit broken by the hours he spends at school being sticky-noted and worksheeted and NCLB'd to death.

I am one of those 4% of ridiculously avid readers and it would break my heart to see him not loving reading (he doesn't have to love it like me... but still, if he was one of those kids that wasn't interested in words ... I would feel like I failed as a parent). What can I do to offset the problems he talked about in his book, before my son hits the surly teenage years (and quits listening to me completely)? Any suggestions would be appreciated :)

The number one reason parents don't read to their kids and the number one reason kids don't read themselves at home is the same. There are no books in the home to read. I believe that the two things that teachers could do to make a difference for kids and give them a chance to become lifelong readers is to send home the book they are reading in the classroom for assigned reading at home nightly and send home books to be read aloud nightly. While some will be lost and some parents still will not turn off the tv and provide reading time, some will...many will and the bonding that will occur around the books will be worth the cost of a book now and then.
All we can do is change the world, one kid at a time...one book at a time, or maybe two!

Mary Ann Rupcich
Primary Teacher

I feel the biggest challenge to lack of reading in my community is the preponderance of electronics and the over-scheduling of sports activities. Some of my more avid readers are reading in bed at 11:00 P.M. because they weren't home much sooner than that. My 5th grade students read/demonstrate 8 book reports in several different genres not to mention short stories, etc. that are part of my regular program. The other challenge is the imposition of NCLB and local/state/national standards that must be met which often supercedes intelligent programming by a wise classroom teacher. Jim Trelease presents some practical suggestions (with the responsibility being on the parent and his/her prioritizing) in his books "Read All About It" and "The Read-Aloud Handbook."

I was glad to see Gallagher champion free recreational reading in his book. As a parent (not a teacher), I feel like I am beating my head up against the wall when it comes to the Accelerated Reader program at my kids' schools. Two of my kids read so fast that they read everything they were interested in at the elementary school library before moving on to middle school, making it difficult for them to earn points in their last years there. My other child reads so slowly that she can never meet her points goal in time, which has given her a negative view of reading in general. It doesn't help that none of the books my struggling reader likes are even in the program.

I attended a summer workshop with Kelly Gallagher two years ago, in Nova Scotia, and I would encourage teachers to take advantage of opportunities to see him present. He brings an authenticity to literacy practices that can only be born of research, dedication to the teaching craft, and the humility of facing over a hundred adolescent learners on a daily basis and wanting the best for them.

Gallagher’s comments on the death of SSR programs and the damage that their elimination does to students’ desire to read are reverberating on the tongues of literacy leaders in our district. Too true is his assertion that by ignoring the recreational side of reading we are contributing to the epidemic of readicide among today’s adolescents.

It is not only the chasing of improved reading scores that is sounding the SSR death knell, teachers are allowing it to become obsolete because they are worn down by the students who are what I call the “serial book choosers” who will run to the classroom library to switch books five times in a twenty minute read and the “fake readers” who have nothing to add to any discussions.

That being said, like Gallagher, I am hopeful. His book offers help for weary educators. Teachers need support to help them learn how to motivate readers and they need intervention ideas to lure their reluctant readers back to books through recreational reading in the classroom. His book is timely for me; I am in the process of planning a workshop on how to make SSR programs successful in middle and high school classrooms.

Isn’t it interesting that the research substantiates SSR as not only a good investment of education’s time and energy, not only a way to nurture a lifelong love of reading, but a way, incidentally, to create those adept reading test-takers integral in these days of high-stakes assessment?

I finally got to read this late today.
I had a fascinating and heart breaking conversation with 2 30 something mothers just last night. Sisters, they both told me that they had problems with retention. So, they may have been undiagnosed with a disability. But the real problem seems to me to be that no one sought to find books that interested them. One of them said that she had been in "Reading Class" from elementary school through high school.


Thanks for pointing me to Readicide.

My job is to motivate tots to read, and while I love what I do, I'm often discouraged when I think about what their schooling future may bring in the way of reading inspiration (or lack there of).

You present some good thoughts to chew on here.


I read your blog on a regular basis and love it a lot. You do indeed have the Gift of bringing children to books.

All of the concern over aliteracy is valid, though these are arguments we get to have over and over. It comes down to this: How can teachers and librarians and parents get kids to see books as more than a means to pass a test, get a grade, fulfill a requirement. And there are no easy answers.

I was a school librarian for 26 great years, and still write and teach and promote literacy on a daily basis. This I know: you raise readers one book at a time. No shortcuts. No special programs--Accelerated Reading, etc.-- will work for every child. Kids read when they find books that speak to them, when other kids get them excited about books, when a grownup takes interest in reading aloud to or with them. There is no one way to raise a reader--every child is different. It's always thrilling when you find the hooks--the books that get your kids head-over-heels riveted.

It's funny how in education we look for the One Thing that will work. There is no One Thing to making kids love to read, get good at reading, and want to read more. We need to pull together our own personal big bags of tricks to try on our children. Reading aloud, acting out stories, comparing books to movies, telling stories, gatting kids writing and drawing and talking about books, going to the library, kid book clubs--these are all in my bag.

Online, there are wonderful sites for kids and their grownups to explore. My favorite is personal--since I've been writing the reviews for it, so I'm very partial--but take a look here: www.READKIDDOREAD.com. Author James Patterson started this site so adults could get a helping hand and know which books kids will not be able to put down. Right now there are 150 books recommended, ages birth to teen, and a Community part to the site so folks can discuss books, listen to author interviews,and find even more booklists. It's pretty wonderful, and it's free.

Will READKIDDOREAD solve all the reading problems in the world? No, but it's one more thing for your bag-'O-tricks. I hope you'll find some great books--real pageturners your kids will love and pass along to other kids.

Judy Freeman
Children's Literature Consultant

I'm trying to figure out how to ask this without sounding completely dumb, and I'm not sure I can, but today is my LAST CHANCE. So here goes.

You've got a work that's part of the curriculum, and it's challenging enough that you know you can't just assign it. (Because that's UNDERTEACHING, and we don't do that, do we? NO!) And it's not a short story or a brief poem - it's pretty long.

What are some strategies that YOU use to promote understanding (so we don't have to review and review and review) when the material is tough, and/or ones that promote engagement (so that if we DO have to spend some time reviewing, they're not already bored going in) when the work is assigned rather than self-selected?

One of the big problems with this issue, I think, is that by the time a teacher gets a student, even if the teacher is getting to them early, there’s already so much ground work that has to be made up. If parents aren’t reading to their children from the beginning, there kids are already at a huge disadvantage even in kindergarten.
Kids who are read to have already spent most of their lives hearing words, seeing them on the page, beginning to make associations between those symbols and those sounds, however rudimentary those associations may be. That puts them so far ahead of students who haven’t been read to that I sometimes doubt that even the best teacher can totally make up for that head start.
I’m not saying that I think it’s impossible to help these kids, nor am I laying all the blame at the feet of parents (some of whom the system failed when they were children), but just noting the challenges are so great. Meanwhile, teachers have a group of kids with reading abilities that range from nonexistent to well above grade level and they’re supposed to teach all of those students at once.
I think reading has to be individualized, at least to a point, or else it’ll never succeed at all. If teachers aren’t free to take students interests and ability level into when assigning books, or to even give student some modicum of control over selecting which books they read, it seems like reading programs are doomed to be stuck in the same rut they’re in now.

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